Monday, February 15, 2016
Chess in Ancient Ireland By Patrick Weston Joyce 1903
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In ancient Ireland chess-playing was a favourite pastime among the higher classes. Everywhere in the Romantic Tales we read of kings and chiefs amusing themselves with chess, and to be a good player was considered a necessary accomplishment of every man of high position. At banquets and all other festive gatherings this was sure to be one of the leading features of the entertainment. In every chief's house there was accordingly at least one set of chess appliances for the use of the family and guests: and chess-boards were sometimes given as part of the tribute to kings. Chess furniture was indeed considered in a manner a necessity, so much so that in this respect it is classified in the Brehon Law with food.
As to the general form and construction of the chessboard there can be no doubt, for Cormac's Glossary (p. 75) describes it with much exactness. This old authority states first, in regard to the game, that the play demands ciall and fath [keeal, faw], i.e. attention and judgment: and it goes on to say that the fidchell or chess-board was divided into black and white compartments by straight lines: that is to say, into black and white squares. The game was called fidchell or fidchellecht [fihel, fihelleght]: and fidchell was used to designate the chess-board. But this was also called clar-fidchilli, clar being the general name for a board or table. The chessmen were called fir-fidchilli, i.e. 'men of chess,' or collectively foirenn, which is the Irish word for a party or body of men in general. The whole set of furniture was called fidchelleght, or fidchell.
The men, when not in use, were kept in a fer-bolg or 'man-bag,' which was sometimes of brass or bronze wire woven. The chiefs took great delight in ornamenting their chessboards and men richly and elaborately with the precious metals and gems. We read in the "Story of the Battle of Mucrime," that when the Irish chief Mac Con was an exile in disguise at the court of the king of Scotland, the king's chessmen were of gold and silver: meaning ornamented with these metals. The following quotation from a much older authority—the "Courtship of Etain" in the Book of the Dun Cow—is very instructive and very much to the point. Midir the fairy king of Bri-leith, comes on a visit to King Ochy:— "What brought thee hither?" said Ochy. "To play chess with thee," answered Midir. "Art thou good at chess?" said Ochy. "Let us try it," said Midir. "The queen is asleep," said Ochy, "and the house in which are the chessboard and men belongs to her." "Here I have as good a set of chess," said Midir. That was true indeed; for it was a board of silver and pure gold; and every angle was illuminated with precious stones; and the man-bag was of woven brass wire." In the Will of Cahirmore, king of Ireland in the second century, we are told that he bequeathed his chessboard and chessmen to his son Olioll Ceadach—an indication of their great value.
The men were distinguished half and half, in some obvious way, to catch the eyes of the two players. Sometimes they were black and white. The foirenn or party of chessmen of Crimthan Nia Nair, king of Ireland about the first century of the Christian era, are thus described:— "One-half of its foirenn was yellow gold, and the other half was findruine" (white bronze). Many ancient chessmen have been found in bogs, in Lewis and other parts of Scotland: but so far as I know we have only a single specimen belonging to Ireland, which was found about 1817 in a bog in Meath, and which is now in the National Museum, Dublin. It is figured above. We frequently read in the tales that a hero, while playing chess, becoming infuriated by some sudden attack or insulting speech, flings his chessman at the enemy and kills or disfigures him. When we remember that chessmen were sometimes made partly of metal and were two and a half inches long, we may well believe this.
The game must, sometimes at least, have been a long one. When St. Adamnan came to confer with King Finachta, he found him engaged in a game of chess: but when his arrival was announced, the king, being aware that he had come on an unpleasant mission, refused to see him till his game was finished: whereupon Adamnan said he would wait, and that he would chant fifty psalms during the interval, in which fifty there was one psalm that would deprive the king's family of the kingdom for ever. The king finished his game however; and played a second, during which fifty other psalms were chanted, one of which doomed him to shortness of life. But when he was threatened with deprivation of heaven by one of the third fifty, he yielded, and went to Adamnan.
That the Irish retained the tradition of the origin of chess as a mimic battle appears from the name given to the chessmen in the story of the Sick Bed of Cuculainn in the Book of the Dun Cow:—namely fianfidchella, i.e. as translated by O'Curry, 'chess-warriors'; fian, a champion or warrior: from which we may infer that the men represented soldiers.
Another game called brannuighecht, or 'brann-playing,' as O'Donovan renders it, is often mentioned in connexion with chess; and it was played with a brannabh, possibly something in the nature of a backgammon board. A party of Dedannans were on one occasion being entertained; and a fidchell or set of chess furniture was provided for every six of them, and a brannabh for every five, showing that chess-playing and brann-playing were different, and were played with different sets of appliances. Among the treasures of the old King Feradach are enumerated his brandaibh and his fithchella. The Brehon Law prescribes fithchellacht and brannuidhecht (as two different things) with several other accomplishments, to be taught to the sons of chiefs when in fosterage. Notwithstanding that chess-playing and brann-playing are so clearly distinguished in the above and many other passages, modern writers very generally confound them: taking brannuighecht to be only another name for fitchellecht or chess-playing, which it is not.
There is still another game called buanbaig, mentioned in connexion with chess and brann-playing, as played by kings and chiefs. When Lugaid mac Con and his companions were fugitives in Scotland, they were admired for their accomplishments, among them being their skilful playing of chess, and brandabh, and buanbaig. Nothing has been discovered to show the exact nature of those two last games.
I have headed this short section with the name "Chess," and have all through translated fitchell by 'chess,' in accordance with the usage of O'Donovan, O'Curry, and Petrie. Dr. Stokes, on the other hand, uniformly renders it "draughts." But, so far as I am aware, there is no internal evidence in Irish literature sufficient to determine with certainty whether the game of fitchell was chess or draughts: for the descriptions would apply equally to both.
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